After dog DNA debacle, Indigenous researcher says ancestry testing is 'stupid science'

A suspected Indian status scam that told a man he shared genetic ancestry with a dog should serve as a reminder of the perils of DNA testing for Indigenous ancestry, says an Edmonton researcher.

Tribal culture can't be bottled in a test tube, says Kim TallBear

Even in a credible DNA lab, there are problems using tests to determine Indigenous affiliation, Kim TallBear says. (Submitted by Kim TallBear)

A suspected Indian status scam that told a man he shared genetic ancestry with a dog should serve as a reminder of the perils of DNA testing for Indigenous ancestry, says an Edmonton researcher.

Kim TallBear, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, said she has long been wary of DNA testing for Indigenous heritage.

DNA testing may be the future of genealogy, but it should not define a person's Indigenous identity, the University of Alberta scholar said Thursday in an interview on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

People excited to learn about their roots won't find all the answers they're looking for inside a test tube, TallBear cautioned.

"I don't want to help them make money doing what I think is stupid science," said the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.

"It's not that it's bad science but I don't think it should inform how we identify as Native people."
Viaguard's DNA testing determined Snoopy has 20 per cent Indigenous ancestry — 12 per cent Abenaki and eight per cent Mohawk. (Louis Côté)

The latest controversy around DNA testing follows a CBC News investigation out of Quebec.

Suspicious of Toronto-based laboratory Viaguard Accu-Metrics, Louis Côté sent in his DNA for analysis along with a swab from his girlfriend's pet chihuahua.

When the tests came back, the results indicated both man and dog shared the same 20-per-cent Indigenous ancestry.

CBC News found there were not only concerns about the accuracy of the DNA tests but also about the possible fraudulent use of cards resembling certificates of Indian status to secure tax exemptions the holders aren't entitled to.

"There are problems in the DNA testing industry related to Native American DNA testing but this is the first time I've seen them confuse native ancestry with dog lineages," TallBear said.

"This is not a mistake that would be very easy to make if you actually had a credible lab, but there are some more subtle problems that happen with these tests."

Culture is more than genetic markers

TallBear said the case is egregious, but suggested all DNA companies are taking advantage of a growing curiosity in ancestry research — while neglecting complex questions around culture, race and government status.

DNA tests are not valid for determining Indigenous affiliation, First Nations or tribal identity, said TallBear. The tests don't satisfy the requirements for Canadian status or band membership.

Genetic ancestry tracing back to unnamed ancestors among the founding populations of the Americas is not the kind of biological tie that matters for gaining status, she said.

Even the most credible tests for Indigenous ancestry rarely provide detailed tribal affiliations and are prone to inaccuracies due to the lack of a diverse sample size of genetic profiles in their databases, said TallBear. 

Even if a person is told they belong to a specific tribe or ethnic group, having matching genetic markers from ages ago doesn't mean they have the lived experience to become part of that community.

Belonging to particular community can mean sharing beliefs, cultural practices and even official membership, not just genetic material.

TallBear said she would never rely on a lab to interpret her cultural roots. 

"Even in a credible DNA lab, there are problems with using these kinds of tests to determine Indigenous affiliation," she said.

"Why should I give them 300 bucks so they get to use my DNA to sell a product that I ethically disagree with?"